Kalgoorlie mayor says cashless welfare card a 'step forward' after work-for-dole 'failure'
Kalgoorlie’s mayor has blamed the federal government’s controversial remote work-for-the-dole scheme for his region’s deep-seated social problems.
John Bowler, the mayor of Kalgoorlie-Boulder mayor, said it was those worsening social ills that have led him to support another federal government intervention: the cashless welfare card.
“If you’ve got a better idea, I’ll adopt it or ask for it,” Bowler said. “I see this as a step forward.”
A Senate inquiry on Thursday began examining plans to expand the cashless welfare card to new sites in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and Bundaberg and Hervey Bay in Queensland. The cards restrict the spending of welfare income to limit alcohol and gambling, and has already been implemented in the East Kimberley as well as Ceduna in South Australia.
The inquiry visited KalgoorlieBoulder on Thursday. Bowler told the inquiry he supported the card’s introduction, a view echoed by the local shires of Coolgardie, Leonora, Laverton, and Menzies.
Many of the local representatives, including Bowler, expressed a sense of desperation in their search for a solution to rising antisocial behaviour, violence, homelessness and alcohol abuse in the region.
Bowler said the biggest beneficiaries of introducing the cashless welfare card would be those sleeping on the streets.
“I don’t fully know – none of us fully know, time will tell – whether this card will be the panacea we hope, or a partway solution,” Bowler said. “But I do know the life they’re experiencing is terrible life, for them and their children,” he said.
“Living on the streets of our city, 124 years after Europeans came here, they are living a half-life, particularly for their children.”
Bowler attributed the problems in his community to the failure of successive federal government policies. He singled out the community development program (CDP), a work-for-the-dole scheme in remote communities which places onerous requirements on welfare recipients.
Critics say CDP participants, the vast majority of whom are Indigenous Australians, are forced to meet impossible job activity obligations to receive their welfare, and then fined when they fail to do so.
Bowler said the previous policy, the community development employment projects (CDEP), was highly successful, until it was expanded to cities and larger towns. “I urge you ... to do whatever you can, when you get back to Canberra, to convince all parties to at least reintroduce a trial [of the CDEP],” Bowler said. “The failure of that policy is the main reason why we’re sitting here today,” he said.
He said he had raised the failure of the CDP policy with prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when the government visited the town to announce it as a new cashless welfare card site.
One Nation senator Pauline Hanson asked Bowler whether he thought the cashless welfare cards should be used to prevent spending on cigarettes.
Bowler responded he thought such a move hypocritical, given the amount of taxes governments collected from the sale of cigarettes.
The cashless welfare card has prompted opposition from welfare rights groups and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy experts.
The National Social Security Rights Network (SSRN), in its submission to the inquiry, said the card was ineffective, expensive and disempowered and demeaned participants.
The network said the card undermined an individual’s capacity to learn to manage their finances, embarrassed and humiliated users publicly, and “remains indirectly racially discriminatory and creates situations of inequality and unfairness in its practical application”.
“It diverts funds away from legitimate purposes such as addressing inadequate levels of income support, or programs and services which, with community consultation, could be used to better help overcome chronic health conditions, accessibility to housing, and underfunded education provision,” the network’s submission said.
The inquiry also heard evidence from witnesses in Ceduna, one of the earlier trial sites.
The Ceduna Koonibba Aboriginal Health Service Aboriginal Corporation said the cashless welfare card had not been a success in the region.
The card had been associated with an increase in theft and crime, elder abuse, suicide, self-harm, domestic violence, and hospitalisations, the corporation said.
The corporation dismissed a consultant’s report on the success of the card in Ceduna as flawed.
The Laverton shire president, Patrick Hill, said he knew the card would not fix all of the complex problems of violence, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness and antisocial behaviour in his community.
But Hill said he was at wit’s end, and said the card would at least give breathing room to the community to work on longer-term solutions.
“We don’t want to see this abuse, we don’t want to see the kids running around with dirty nappies on for a couple of days,” Hill said.
“We’ve had enough, we’re sick of people in Canberra telling us how to run our communities, when we see it every day,” he said.
“This is a solution, it’s not the answer to everything, but it’s a start.”
Cashless welfare cards restrict the spending of welfare income to limit alcohol and gambling.